Astrogeology Science Center

NASA’s Verdict: Say Your Goodbyes to Cassini

11 September 2017

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft will be put to death. Scientists preplanned the spacecraft to crash into Saturn and Cassini will disintegrate in a burst of searing flame. Sadly, this will end its phenomenal journey of the exploration of the Saturn system. The demise of Cassini will eliminate the possibility of contaminating potential life forms that may exist on Saturn’s moons, such as Titan and Enceladus.

The Cassini Huygens Mission, a joint endeavor of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency launched on October 15, 1997, and entered orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004. Its mission encompassed a detailed, up-close study of Saturn and its extensive rings and moons.

Has Cassini delivered? The results speak for themselves. For starters, Cassini delivered the European Space Agency's Huygens probe that landed successfully on Saturn's moon, Titan, in January 2005. A plethora of images of Saturn and its rings and moons have enabled thousands of scientific studies. Some topics of scientific assessment, research, theories and hypotheses have been substantiated. A few notable discoveries include hydrothermal activity and erupting geysers and a global subsurface ocean on Enceladus. Titan is a world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas made of hydrocarbons. Cassini even discovered new moons. These are merely a taste of what the Cassini mission has accomplished, excluding information that was planned to be garnered from the Grand Finale orbits.

 

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Artist rendition shows Cassini as the spacecraft makes one of its final five dives through Saturn's upper atmosphere in August and Spetember 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Cassini’s Grand Finale, a series of 22 orbits, began on April 22, 2017 with Cassini’s first plunge through the space between Saturn and its rings. Each orbit took approximately six and a half days to complete, and with each revolution, Cassini snapped photos of the surface of Saturn at unprecedented scale. During Cassini’s last five orbits, the spacecraft sampled Saturn’s upper atmosphere, closer than ever before! We are on the final orbit #22, which indicates it is time to say our good-byes. “Cassini will dip so deeply into the atmosphere that the spacecraft will burn up like a meteor,” says NASA.